A raft of state bills would add new rules and regulations for California charter schools, setting up a showdown over just how far charters’ famed freedoms will go.

The bills span a wide spread of subjects, from worker rights to conflicts of interest to classroom intercoms, but they have reignited the same age-old debate over freedoms between charter schools and their critics in unions and school boards.

State legislators have pushed for more restrictions on charters for many reasons: Some lawmakers were spurred to act by charter school scandals. Others want school districts to have more leeway to say no before a faulty charter opens. One argued that charter school admission rules were screening out students who might perform badly. And one wanted more rights for charter school workers.

Charter backers protest that many of the new rules would trample on the freedoms charters were created to enjoy and experiment with. The idea behind charters was to liberate some schools from the thicket of bureaucracy that public schools work under. Now charters fear the bureaucracy is creeping back.

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Eric Premack, executive director of Sacramento’s Charter Schools Development Center, said opponents realize they can’t end charters altogether, so they’re going with a different tactic. “They’re trying death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

Charter schools aren’t bound by the rules that restrict other public schools. They get public money but are run independently by their own boards, with limited oversight from school districts. They are free to choose their own school rules and educational methods. Most hire and fire employees as they wish.

They include some of the brightest stars among San Diego schools — and some of the dimmest.

The tradeoff for that freedom is that charters are supposed to be more accountable. If a charter school mismanages its money, falters academically or runs afoul of its own rules, it can be shut down.

The California Charter Schools Association has argued that the best way to keep charters in check is to beef up rules for shutting bad ones down. It has championed a bill that would ban school districts from letting charters with stagnant scores stay open unless the charters make a case to the state.

But some lawmakers want to seek more regulations to stop problems before schools must be shut down. Labor unions and traditional school groups such as the California School Boards Association have backed many of those bills, arguing that schools that get public money must be regulated more closely. They contend that classroom innovations can continue with the added rules, true to the charter dream.

“They may be laboratories of innovation, but that doesn’t mean that employee rights have to stop,” said Jim Groth, a California teachers union board member from Chula Vista.

Seven different bills have landed on watch lists for charter schools wary of losing their freedoms. Some are ideas that have been shot down before, vetoed under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But new Gov. Jerry Brown is a wild card for both sides, a Democrat who helped start up charter schools but has been dubious that they’re a panacea.

“We’re in a different environment here in Sacramento. A different legislature. A different governor,” said Jed Wallace, California Charter Schools Association president. “And that has made a lot of people want to test the waters.”

The bills this spring have focused on:

• Capping the number of charter schools that can operate in the state.

• Stopping charter schools from giving preference to some students over others during admission, except for students whose brothers or sisters go to the same school.

• Adding rights for sick leave and holidays for charter school workers who do not teach.

• Extending a sweeping conflict-of-interest code to charter schools to regulate boards.

• Requiring that charter schools create safety plans and are equipped with two-way communication devices such as walkie-talkies or intercoms.

• Letting school districts consider whether someone who wants to open a charter school has had problems running a charter school in the past and setting audit standards for charter schools.

• Allowing school districts to stop charters from opening if it could harm the district financially.

The tug of war in Sacramento echoes battles here in San Diego Unified over how tightly its charter schools should be regulated. School districts can indeed shut down charters: San Diego Unified recently took the first step towards shuttering Promise, an embattled Chollas View school.

Shutdowns are costly, painful and politically toxic. School boards want stricter rules for charters up front, ones like the rules they themselves follow, to prevent meltdowns later, said Brian Rivas, senior legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association.

His group sponsored a bill that would end a longstanding dispute over whether charters must hew to a sweeping state conflict-of-interest code, which bans boards from striking any agreement that could financially benefit one of their members.

The California Charter Schools Association is locked in negotiations over the wording of the bill, such as how to ensure that teachers can still serve on charter school boards without causing conflicts. The conflict-of-interest code has been a sticking point in several disputes over charters here in San Diego.

San Diego Unified slammed Promise for allegedly allowing Principal Jose Orozco to vote on his own contract. Even if Orozco abstained, as Promise claims, the code would invalidate the decision. Promise argues that the rule doesn’t apply to charters. The same disagreement flared up three years ago at Theory Into Practice Academy, an Encinitas charter school that was closed over conflicts of interest, including the improper approval of contracts that could profit its board members. The rule has never been put to a test in court.

Another bill would guarantee charter school employees who don’t teach, such as janitors and clerks, some of the same rights as school district workers, including paid holidays and bereavement leave. Most charter school employees aren’t unionized, with the same protections assured to private employees.

“We don’t want employees deciding whether they’re going to mourn the loss of a loved one or earn their paycheck,” said Joshua Golka, legislative advocate for the California School Employees Association, a union that represents school workers other than teachers, counselors and nurses.

Charters argue labor rules shouldn’t be forced onto their unique schools. Charter leaders also fear it would set a slippery precedent.

Freedom to strike their own agreements with workers has helped charters adapt in unusual ways: San Diego Global Vision Academy, a tiny school in Normal Heights, dramatically slashed pay for all employees last year to survive and keep school programs intact while state payments were delayed. It later repaid its workers.

“It takes decisions away from the school, between the employer and the employee,” CEO Dena Harris said. The proposed bill could also impose new costs, state lawmakers have found. “You only get so much money a year. So you lose the field trips. The backpacks. The after-school snack. That’s the stuff that goes away.”

Charter backers have fended off some of the bills, including one that would let districts turn down a charter if it would hurt them financially. But others are still kicking in Sacramento.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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